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What's in a number?

Trying to unravel who's who in al Qaeda

By Henry Schuster

Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is currently on vacation; his column will resume the week of May 23.

Abu Faraj al-Libbi
Pakistan's Interior Ministry released this picture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi in custody.
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Pakistan seize a man officials say was the No. 3 al Qaeda leader.

(CNN) -- Either Abu Faraj al-Libbi is the most important member of al Qaeda to be captured in the last two years. Or he isn't.

It seems to depend on whom you talk to.

Al-Libbi's arrest last week in Pakistan and the debate over his importance highlights how little is actually known about how al Qaeda operates and about how the group has evolved since the September 11 attacks.

"Pakistan seizes 'al Qaeda No. 3'" was the way al Libbi's arrest was headlined on this Web site - and in many other places.

Even President Bush took time out from an appearance about Social Security reform to proclaim the capture of al-Libbi as a blow against al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

"Al-Libbi was a top general for bin Laden. He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat to America and for those who love freedom," Bush said.

The president didn't use the No. 3 ranking, but U.S. intelligence officials did after his arrest.

The CIA's former acting director, John McLaughlin, called al-Libbi his No. 1 priority and described him as Osama bin Laden's chief operating officer.

And McLaughlin, who is now a CNN consultant, said on CNN's "American Morning," that capturing al-Libbi might actually be more important than grabbing bin Laden.

"Catching terrorists is sometimes like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture on the box," McLaughlin said. "This is a guy who knows the picture on the box. He knows what the big picture is."

Joined al Qaeda in the 1990s

Al-Libbi is a Libyan in his 40s who joined al Qaeda in the 1990's and fled to Pakistan after the United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. He has a skin condition, which appears to same condition that Michael Jackson has, and it makes him recognizable.

Those who rank him as third in al Qaeda's hierarchy, behind bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, say that he took over operations for the group after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in March 2003, also in Pakistan (KSM, as he's known, was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, according to the White House).

U.S. officials say al-Libbi was in contact with and directing alleged al Qaeda members in the United Kingdom who were planning attacks there and in the United States.

Perhaps, more importantly from the Pakistani standpoint, he's also the alleged mastermind of two recent assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

A devastating resume for any terrorist, but does that make him al Qaeda's No. 3?

No, says Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden several times. "Some people are overexcited about his (al Libbi's) arrest."

Mir said he believes that al-Libbi's primary activity was working inside Pakistan with a militant group there that is trying to overthrow Musharraf, but that he had little reach inside either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Mir says the No. 3 in al Qaeda is an Egyptian named Saif al-Adil. According to Mir, al-Adil has been publicly designated to take over from Ayman al-Zawahiri should he ever be captured or killed; just as al-Zawahiri has been designated as bin Laden's successor.

Al-Adil was last known to be in Iran and thought to be under some form of detention there, according to Iranian officials.

Al Qaeda's operations chief

But is it even appropriate to speak of al Qaeda having an organizational chart anymore or of someone being No. 3 or No. 4?

"The numbers are irrelevant," says Rohan Gunaratna, the author of "Inside Al Qaeda" and a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Gunaratna says that al Qaeda's core organization, which is headed by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, has been overtaken by al Qaeda-affiliated groups. What we used to think of as al Qaeda has taken on more of what Gunaratna calls an "inspirational, rather than an operational role," as bin Laden and al-Zawahiri remain on the run.

According to Gunaratna, the real de facto operations chief of al Qaeda these days is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who recently swore allegiance to bin Laden and al Qaeda. The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi has claimed credit for a string of bloody terrorist attacks in Iraq.

One way to determine the real importance of al-Libbi's capture is whether it gets the United States and Pakistan any closer to finding bin Laden. Right now, the Pakistanis are interrogating al-Libbi and sharing the information with the U.S. government.

From John McLaughlin, there's a mixed message about al-Libbi and bin Laden: "If anyone would know, he would know."

"But, at the same time, once you do a capture like this, the word filters out quickly into the extremist network and everyone runs to ground, which, of course, is a benefit, in a sense, because it disrupts terrorist activities. But it may make it also harder to stay on bin Laden's trail."

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